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DARK PLOTTINGS AT BLANDINGS CASTLE
At the open window of the great library of Blandings Castle, drooping like a wet sock, as was his habit when he had nothing to prop his spine against, the Earl of Emsworth, that amiable and boneheaded peer, stood gazing out over his domain.
It was a lovely morning and the air was fragrant with gentle summer scents. Yet in his lordship's pale blue eyes there was a look of melancholy. His brow was furrowed, his mouth peevish. And this was all the more strange in that he was normally as happy as only a fluffy-minded man with excellent health and a large income can be. A writer, describing Blandings Castle in a magazine article, had once said: 'Tiny mosses have grown in the cavities of the stones, until, viewed near at hand, the place seems shaggy with vegetation.' It would not have been a bad description of the proprietor. Fifty-odd years of serene and unruffled placidity had given Lord Emsworth a curiously moss-covered look. Very few things had the power to disturb him. Even his younger son, the Hon. Freddie Threepwood, could only do it occasionally.
Yet now he was sad. And -- not to make a mystery of it any longer -- the reason of his sorrow was the fact that he had mislaid his glasses and without them was as blind, to use his own neat simile, as a bat. He was keenly aware of the sunshine that poured down on his gardens, and was yearning to pop out and potter among the flowers he loved. But no man, pop he never so wisely, can hope to potter with any good result if the world is a mere blur.
The door behind him opened, and Beach the butler entered, a dignified procession of one.
'Who's that?' inquired Lord Emsworth, spinning on his axis.
'It is I, your lordship -- Beach.'
'Have you found them?'
'Not yet, your lordship,' sighed the butler.
'You can't have looked.'
'I have searched assiduously, your lordship, but without avail. Thomas and Charles also announce non-success. Stokes has not yet made his report.'
'I am re-despatching Thomas and Charles to your lordship's bedroom,' said the Master of the Hunt. 'I trust that their efforts will be rewarded.'
Beach withdrew, and Lord Emsworth turned to the window again. The scene that spread itself beneath him -- though he was unfortunately not able to see it -- was a singularly beautiful one, for the castle, which is one of the oldest inhabited houses in England, stands upon a knoll of rising ground at the southern end of the celebrated Vale of Blandings in the county of Shropshire. Away in the blue distance wooded hills ran down to where the Severn gleamed like an unsheathed sword; while up from the river rolling park-land, mounting and dipping, surged in a green wave almost to the castle walls, breaking on the terraces in a many-coloured flurry of flowers as it reached the spot where the province of Angus McAllister, his lordship's head gardener, began. The day being June the thirtieth, which is the very high-tide time of summer flowers, the immediate neighbourhood of the castle was ablaze with roses, pinks, pansies, carnations, hollyhocks, columbines, larkspurs, London pride, Canterbury bells, and a multitude of other choice blooms of which only Angus could have told you the names. A conscientious man was Angus; and in spite of being a good deal hampered by Lord Emsworth's amateur assistance, he showed excellent results in his department. In his beds there was much at which to point with pride, little to view with concern.
Scarcely had Beach removed himself when Lord Emsworth was called upon to turn again. The door had opened for the second time, and a young man in a beautifully-cut suit of grey flannel was standing in the doorway. He had a long and vacant face topped by shining hair brushed back and heavily brilliantined after the prevailing mode, and he was standing on one leg. For Freddie Threepwood was seldom completely at his ease in his parent's presence.
It would be paltering with the truth to say that Lord Emsworth's greeting was a warm one. It lacked the note of true affection. A few weeks before he had had to pay a matter of five hundred pounds to settle certain racing debts for his offspring; and, while this had not actually dealt an irretrievable blow at his bank account, it had undeniably tended to diminish Freddie's charm in his eyes.
'Hear you've lost your glasses, guv'nor.'
'That is so.'
'Ought to have a spare pair.'
'I have broken my spare pair.'
'Tough luck! And lost the other?'
'And, as you say, lost the other.'
'Have you looked for the bally things?'
'Must be somewhere, I mean.'
'Where,' asked Freddie, warming to his work, 'did you see them last?'
'Go away!' said Lord Emsworth, on whom his child's conversation had begun to exercise an oppressive effect.
'Yes, go away!'
The door closed. His lordship returned to the window once more.
He had been standing there some few minutes when one of those miracles occurred which happen in libraries. Without sound or warning a section of books started to move away from the parent body and, swinging out in a solid chunk into the room, showed a glimpse of a small, study-like apartment. A young man in spectacles came noiselessly through and the books returned to their place.
The contrast between Lord Emsworth and the new-comer, as they stood there, was striking, almost dramatic. Lord Emsworth was so acutely spectacle-less; Rupert Baxter, his secretary, so pronouncedly spectacled. It was his spectacles that struck you first as you saw the man. They gleamed efficiently at you. If you had a guilty conscience, they pierced you through and through; and even if your conscience was one hundred per cent. pure you could not ignore them. 'Here,' you said to yourself, 'is an efficient young man in spectacles.'
In describing Rupert Baxter as efficient, you did not overestimate him. He was essentially that. Technically but a salaried subordinate, he had become by degrees, owing to the limp amiability of his employer, the real master of the house. He was the Brains of Blandings, the man at the switch, the person in charge, and the pilot, so to speak, who weathered the storm. Lord Emsworth left everything to Baxter, only asking to be allowed to potter in peace; and Baxter, more than equal to the task, shouldered it without wincing.
Having got within range, Baxter coughed; and Lord Emsworth, recognising the sound, wheeled round with a faint flicker of hope. It might be that even this apparently insoluble problem of the missing pince-nez would yield before the other's efficiency.
'Baxter, my dear fellow, I've lost my glasses. My glasses. I have mislaid them. I cannot think where they can have gone to. You haven't seen them anywhere by any chance?'
'Yes, Lord Emsworth,' replied the secretary, quietly equal to the crisis. 'They are hanging down your back.'
'Down my back? Why, bless my soul!' His lordship tested the statement and found it -- like all Baxter's statements -- accurate. 'Why, bless my soul, so they are! Do you know, Baxter, I really believe I must be growing absent-minded.' He hauled in the slack, secured the pince-nez, adjusted them beamingly. His irritability had vanished like the dew off one of his roses. 'Thank you, Baxter, thank you. You are invaluable.'
And with a radiant smile Lord Emsworth made buoyantly for the door, en route for God's air and the society of McAllister. The movement drew from Baxter another cough -- a sharp, peremptory cough this time; and his lordship paused, reluctantly, like a dog whistled back from the chase. A cloud fell over the sunniness of his mood. Admirable as Baxter was in so many respects, he had a tendency to worry him at times; and something told Lord Emsworth that he was going to worry him now.
'The car will be at the door,' said Baxter with quiet firmness, 'at two sharp.'
'Car? What car?'
'The car to take you to the station.'
'Station? What station?'
Rupert Baxter preserved his calm. There were times when he found his employer a little trying, but he never showed it.
'You have perhaps forgotten, Lord Emsworth, that you arranged with Lady Constance to go to London this afternoon.'
'Go to London!' gasped Lord Emsworth, appalled. 'In weather like this? With a thousand things to attend to in the garden? What a perfectly preposterous notion! Why should I go to London? I hate London.'
'You arranged with Lady Constance that you would give Mr McTodd lunch to-morrow at your club.'
'Who the devil is Mr McTodd?'
'The well-known Canadian poet.'
'Never heard of him.'
'Lady Constance has long been a great admirer of his work. She wrote inviting him, should he ever come to England, to pay a visit to Blandings. He is now in London and is to come down to-morrow for two weeks. Lady Constance's suggestion was that, as a compliment to Mr McTodd's eminence in the world of literature, you should meet him in London and bring him back here yourself.'
Lord Emsworth remembered now. He also remembered that this positively infernal scheme had not been his sister Constance's in the first place. It was Baxter who had made the suggestion, and Constance had approved. He made use of the recovered pince-nez to glower through them at his secretary; and not for the first time in recent months was aware of a feeling that this fellow Baxter was becoming a dashed infliction. Baxter was getting above himself, throwing his weight about, making himself a confounded nuisance. He wished he could get rid of the man. But where could he find an adequate successor? That was the trouble. With all his drawbacks, Baxter was efficient. Nevertheless, for a moment Lord Emsworth toyed with the pleasant dream of dismissing him. And it is possible, such was his exasperation, that he might on this occasion have done something practical in that direction, had not the library door at this moment opened for the third time, to admit yet another intruder -- at the sight of whom his lordship's militant mood faded weakly.
'Oh -- hallo, Connie!' he said, guiltily, like a small boy caught in the jam cupboard. Somehow his sister always had this effect upon him.
Of all those who had entered the library that morning the new arrival was the best worth looking at. Lord Emsworth was tall and lean and scraggy, Rupert Baxter thick-set and handicapped by that vaguely grubby appearance which is presented by swarthy young men of bad complexion, and even Beach, though dignified, and Freddie, though slim, would never have got far in a beauty competition. But Lady Constance Keeble really took the eye. She was a strikingly handsome woman in the middle forties. She had a fair, broad brow, teeth of a perfect even whiteness, and the carriage of an empress. Her eyes were large and grey, and gentle -- and incidentally misleading, for gentle was hardly the adjective which anybody who knew her would have applied to Lady Constance. Though genial enough when she got her way, on the rare occasions when people attempted to thwart her she was apt to comport herself in a manner reminiscent of Cleopatra on one of the latter's bad mornings.
'I hope I am not disturbing you,' said Lady Constance with a bright smile. 'I just came in to tell you to be sure not to forget, Clarence, that you are going to London this afternoon to meet Mr McTodd.'
'I was just telling Lord Emsworth,' said Baxter, 'that the car would be at the door at two.'
'Thank you, Mr Baxter. Of course I might have known that you would not forget. You are so wonderfully capable. I don't know what in the world we would do without you.'
The Efficient Baxter bowed. But, though gratified, he was not overwhelmed by the tribute. The same thought had often occurred to him independently.
'If you will excuse me,' he said, 'I have one or two things to attend to . . .'
'Certainly, Mr Baxter.'
The Efficient One withdrew through the door in the bookshelf. He realised that his employer was in fractious mood, but knew that he was leaving him in capable hands.
Lord Emsworth turned from the window, out of which he had been gazing with a plaintive detachment.
'Look here, Connie,' he grumbled feebly. 'You know I hate literary fellows. It's bad enough having them in the house, but when it comes to going to London to fetch 'em . . . '
He shuffled morosely. It was a perpetual grievance of his, this practice of his sister's of collecting literary celebrities and dumping them down in the home for indeterminate visits. You never knew when she was going to spring another on you. Already since the beginning of the year he had suffered from a round dozen of the species at brief intervals; and at this very moment his life was being poisoned by the fact that Blandings was sheltering a certain Miss Aileen Peavey, the mere thought of whom was enough to turn the sunshine off as with a tap.
'Can't stand literary fellows,' proceeded his lordship. 'Never could. And, by Jove, literary females are worse. Miss Peavey. . .' Here words temporarily failed the owner of Blandings. 'Miss Peavey. . .' he resumed after an eloquent pause. 'Who is Miss Peavey?'
'My dear Clarence,' replied Lady Constance tolerantly, for the fine morning had made her mild and amiable, 'if you do not know that Aileen is one of the leading poetesses of the younger school, you must be very ignorant.'
'I don't mean that. I know she writes poetry. I mean who is she? You suddenly produced her here like a rabbit out of a hat,' said his lordship, in a tone of strong resentment. 'Where did you find her?'
'I first made Aileen's acquaintance on an Atlantic liner when Joe and I were coming back from our trip round the world. She was very kind to me when I was feeling the motion of the vessel.. . . If you mean what is her family, I think Aileen told me once that she was connected with the Rutlandshire Peaveys.'
'Never heard of them!' snapped Lord Emsworth. 'And, if they're anything like Miss Peavey, God help Rutlandshire!'
Tranquil as Lady Constance's mood was this morning, an ominous stoniness came into her grey eyes at these words, and there is little doubt that in another instant she would have discharged at her mutinous brother one of those shattering come-backs for which she had been celebrated in the family from nursery days onward; but at this juncture the Efficient Baxter appeared again through the bookshelf.
From the Trade Paperback edition.